We Need Fewer Teachers, Not More

By 03/09/2010

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In Sunday’s NYT, Elizabeth Green explains beautifully the challenges of classroom teaching, revealing both the critical importance of teaching talent and the extraordinary challenges of producing it. Bored students are ignoring assiduous efforts by hard-working but not particularly knowledgeable or pedagogically sophisticated instructors. Schools of education are driving off in the wrong direction, she tells us, and no one can quite figure out in advance how to give future teachers the tools to perform well at their trade. She says we will need millions of additional teachers to cover baby boom retirements, and wonders how we can find enough good ones.

The answer is that we can’t–not even with more effective education schools or elaborate merit pay programs or by ruthlessly dismissing ineffective teachers.

As I explain in Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, we need fewer teachers, not more, and those few teachers must reach thousands of students at a time.  Fortunately, this possibility, once remote, is now arriving with a speed as rapid as that of the avatar-laden space ship zeroing in on the planet Pandora.  As we enter the world of high-powered notebook computers, broadband internet connections, 3-dimensional curricula, open-source product development, and internet-based games, both co-operative and competitive, students will learn by accessing dynamic, interactive instructional materials that provide information to each student at the level of accomplishment he or she has reached.

Today, millions of students in brick-and-mortar classrooms are either bored because they already know the material being presented or confused because it is far beyond their contemporary level of comprehension. Teaching algebra to someone who cannot divide just doesn’t work.

Solving the teaching problem does not mean hiring millions of better teachers but finding new ways of reaching students directly.  Teachers can then be used as coaches to help students access curricula created by the world’s most brilliant pedagogues–who in some cases may turn out to be students themselves.

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  • […] over at Education Next, Harvard’s Paul Peterson says one of Green’s key conclusions is […]

  • Jacob says:

    The world of jazz pedagogy is decades ahead of the teacher training programs. There are thousands of music books that break down the playing of famous musicians into short patterns & licks. It’s now possible for even a fairly novice player to memorize their way to a pretty decent solo.

    A few years ago someone figured out that you could put these jazz patterns into a computer – and bam! You’ve got a robot that plays saxophone like John Coltrane. Luck for me, John Coltrane robots won’t put anyone out of business because there are more than enough real jazz musicians to go around, and a real musician who can actually improvise will always sound better than a machine playing patterns.

    The same can’t be said for teaching. We will never have enough master teachers to go around because there simply aren’t enough people who have what it takes to be a master teacher – the need is too great. We don’t even know if there are enough people who could learn all the patterns it takes to teach a decent class. If good enough is all we can do, would you rather listen to:
    or this

  • Tom Linehan says:

    While taking classes or even seminars, I have often thought of something like this. Why could this not be recorded and played back as needed? Some basic explanations such as the function of place in numbers or the concept of limits in calculus are really straight forward. I have seen clear expositions and poor expositions of both. Why not simply play back the very best?

  • andrea says:

    Hey! I’m sure I thought of this first! :-)

    Actually, I don’t think we need less teachers, but no more… but the technology point… dead on.

    It’s just common sense isn’t it?

  • Reese says:

    See http://www.khanacademy.org/ recently covered by PBS.

  • Paul Dunkleberger says:

    So we stick kids in a room by themselves in front of a computer? This is teaching to you? This is learning? I don’t know about others, but I value the interaction between teacher and student and the interaction with other students. There will never, EVER, be a replacement for one person having a connection to another. You can’t get that from a pc and you will end up with students who may know their algebra inside and out, but who can’t interact with other humans.
    In my classroom, it was the personal moments that we all cherished.

  • Adrian Rodriguez says:

    This is just silly. There may be thousands of bored children in classrooms but suggesting that online learning is the answer is absurd. Having experienced both classroom instruction as well as online instruction I can say that even in my most bored moments in a classroom I learned more than in the most engaged moments on the computer. Education is an interactive and HUMAN experience. The computer experience is alienating and frankly dull.

  • Russ Cage says:

    If you measure education by how touch-feely it is, rather than how much is learned, I’m sure you’re going to value the personal connection to someone at the front of the room over anything that arrives via a screen.

    When millions of “students” exit K-12 with diplomas but lacking either true (even functional) literacy or numeracy, the emphasis on “one person having a connection to another” has to go by the wayside. Being a self-supporting adult in the information age means being able to read, understand and produce. How kids acquire these abilities is irrelevant. If you leave those millions to stagnate in unemployability because the computers to deliver materials didn’t have enough “personal connections” to suit you, you deserve the blame for their predicament.

    We need to do what works, prejudices be damned.

  • Terry Daugherty says:

    I know we can set them in front of television sets and then a plane can fly around that broadcast TV siganls. That plane will have a teacher that teaches lessons to all the students on the ground watching the television. Millions of students one teacher, lets do it.

  • Adrian Rodriguez says:

    This has nothing to do with touchy-feely connections. This has to do with my experience as both an educator (not a theorist ora gadfly) and a student. The virtual education nonsense is for education on the cheap. Your faith is that somehow virtual education will have better results than the current system of education. I doubt it. Actual evidence instead of ideological blather would be nice. Will you be enrolling your children in the Univesity of Phoenix instead of Harvard. I doubt it. The prejudice is yours, not mine.

  • Russ Cage says:

    My experience is mostly as a student (some as a tutor), but I don’t pretend to expertise I don’t have.

    Really good materials (what Daugherty maligns as a teacher flying around in an airplane) can both inform students and inspire teachers. Ever heard of Feynman’s lectures on physics? They have been lauded by many as some of the clearest and most accessible educational resources on the areas they cover, yet they are the work of ONE MAN. It may only take the efforts of a few dozen inspired people recording lectures, plus a few tens of thousands to answer individual questions, to bring millions of students to the point where they understand what Feynman was trying to teach.

    I learn a great deal from what I read. I don’t require a one-on-one, or even one-on-twenty, experience to learn many things. The same materials which serve me can serve a hundred, or a billion… if they are good enough. I am not prejudiced, I am experienced.

    I have plenty of experience with the “current system of education”, including ignorant staff using their authority to assert falsehoods (about statistics, to give one example). If you think that credentialed staff spouting falsehoods can produce better-educated students than the best written or recorded materials, I’d like to see evidence to support that position. Until then… OUT, OUT, YOU DEMONS OF STUPIDITY!

  • Adrian Rodriguez says:

    I’m not surprised that your experience is limited to being a student. I would never malign the educative powers of a powerful book, film, lecture, etc. However, to assert a host of recorded lectures as a substitute for our educational system is at best utopian and at worst stupid. Some students may not need formal education. So be it. I’m all for educational alternatives. But that’s just it, it should be an alternative. Not all students are going to be able to simply watch the Feynman lectures and learn.

    Moving on, I agree that credentialing is a joke, and that most of our teachers (as well as our fellow citizens) are trained but hardly educated. This, however, is not a sufficient argument to dispense with the educational system. There are plenty of thoughtful educators that work diligently and successsfully with their students everyday. We need to move beyond reactionary bashing of the schools and listen to what educators (not education professors, wealthy industrialists, or politicians) have to say. They are not always right but they are talking from a place of actual experience and not just ideology.

    Additionally, “ignorant staff using their authority to assert falsehoods” are n0t found only in public schools. In fact, this is almost certainly the modus operandi of all of our institutions-corporations, small businesses, think tanks, goverment, etc.

  • Russ Cage says:

    Why should we listen to educators? Educators have given us the last half-century and more of fads and empire-building, increasing their own prestige and pay at the expense of essential foundation abilities like reading and arithmetic. We should only listen to people who have verifiable facts on their side. All others involved in this fiasco should, like saints, be considered guilty until proven innocent… especially given the Orwellian distortions of language used to justify the Kafkaesque system ordinary mortals have to negotiate to get what they’d expect as a matter of course from a private business (like service).

    I note your strawman argument. Recorded lectures (also high-quality printed material , interactive computer courseware and forms not yet invented) are not substitutes for an educational system. Most people are not natural autodidacts, which is why we have schools in the first place. High-quality materials are force-multipliers, because the cost of reproducing information is close to zero (unlike the cost of producing a Richard Feynman!). But reducing the number of personnel required to teach runs directly counter to the interests of “educators”, who want job security. Unfortunately, the more “educators” required by the system, the less choosy society can afford to be and the less society can afford to pay each one. Society is probably better off with a system which tries to exploit quality in both personnel and materials rather than quantity of bodies in front of classrooms.

  • dlw3 says:

    First, I think the notion of an educator’s role has become very skewed over the course of this discussion; that is, I’m finding that a few of you are making analogies between a rote skill set and what it takes to be a successful educator. While best practices are a part of the equation, they only account for the “delivery” aspect of education. Whether or not you’ve ever been in charge of a classroom, I would imagine that you are at least subliminally aware of the fact that education is more than just dumping information in student’s brains.

    How will these techno-educators account for their student’s mastery of the lessons they deliver? How, with hundreds or thousands of students to account for, will these educators gain an understanding of where each student is coming from on a social-emotional level? This goes beyond touchy-feely–there is plenty of data to show that a lack of inclusiveness, particularly in failing schools, contributes to the achievement gap. Mr. Peterson’s dichotomous account of why students aren’t performing–(1) because they already know the material or (2) because the material doesn’t speak to their “contemporary” mindsets–completely misses this perspective. Yet, I won’t rule it out completely: I think the concept, while flawed, opens up an interesting discussion of what an educator should be.

  • E. N. Cornier says:

    Put a kindergartener in front of a screen and see how long that lasts.

  • Bruno Behrend says:

    The detractors here are missing the point. Some people would benefit from a classroom. Others might do well with distance learning.

    Some content can be demonstrated in a 3-5 minute video and mastered in a classroom later. Other content can be taught in class, but reviewed on-line.

    The promoters of distance learning/technology overstate their case, but not by very much. There are huge savings to be found in rapidly expanding virtual education.

    The promoters of the status quo have had 50-70 years to prove their model, and a 2 decades of massive funding increases, administrative bloat, and fruitless “class size reduction” have not come close to proving successful.

    There will alway be a place for a talented conveyor of content. The “classroom” will endure. What should not endure, indeed cannot endure, is the and its massively over -staffed and under-performing current system.

  • Jacob Mack says:

    Interesting entry. I think we need a combination of higher quality teacher training programs which can reach more current teachers as well as, future teachers. I like the mentioning of the online or distance education format as it is a very effective learning modality when applied properly, based upon research in educational publications of peer review. I must say, however, we do need more teachers to reach so many different and varied demographics and micro-niches. We need to consider connectivist, constructivist and behavioral learning models in conjunction with: learning styles, intra group dynamics, classroom design, and what we agree constitutes a quality classroom in the first place.

  • Emily Hassel says:

    Food for thought: We must first commit to reaching more children with top-tier learning progress. Though potentially very powerful, technology is only one tool for doing this. If we commit to technology rather than extending the reach of top teachers, we will undoubtedly replace mediocrity delivered in person with mediocrity delivered by technology. There are numerous ways to extend the best teachers’ reach in person. We estimate that 50% more children could be reached by today’s top teachers while also increasing the number of personalized learning minutes that children experience — by reorganizing teachers’ time and roles within the schoolhouse. What’s more, our nation could pay the best teachers more for the additional children they reach, while offering them achievement and impact opportunities unavailable today. Technology that delivers top instruction to even more children only increases the multiple. But we must remember: the success of any method must be measured both by the number of children reached and by the learning progress they make. See our reports 3X for All and Opportunity at the Top at opportunityculture.org to learn more.
    –Emily and Bryan Hassel, Co-Directors of Public Impact

  • Ken says:

    Paul Peterson, I can tell you’ve never taught a class of middle schoolers in your life. If you did you wouldn’t be advocating what I see above.

    Humble suggestion: Read Diane Ravitch’s “Death and Life of the Great American School System” as well as Linda Darling-Hammond’s “Education in a Flat World”. Both are excellent, and as real teachers could tell you, we won’t “fix” education until we follow the strategies inside of them.

    I’m wondering how long it will take for people in this country to become humble enough to follow the lead of Finland or South Korea???

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